February is Black History Month

Frederick Douglass composite of images from Wikimedia Commons.


THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 1—We have a rich array of resources to recommend for your reflections on Black History Month this year. Let’s start with a question:

Why is Black History Month in February?

Carter G. Woodson

The “father of black history” was historian and author Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) who co-founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915 as well as The Journal of Negro History in 1916.

A decade later, in 1926, Woodson capitalized on two milestones that were widely observed each year among African American families: Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and Frederick Douglass’ birthday on February 14. He wisely scheduled his new Negro History Week to appeal naturally to those communities already looking to the past in early February.

However, Woodson had a far larger vision for his observance: He wanted to encourage organized programs to teach African American history in public schools. At first, he could find only a handful of early adopters in schools in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.

Woodson was a prolific author and argued that establishing a well-known body of history was crucial to the survival of black culture and the potential for African-American progress. “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” he wrote. In particular, Woodson admired Jewish leaders who had kept their culture, tradition and communities alive despite many historic threats to their survival.

He started with two birthdays that already were popular in African-American communities and, around those two dates, he built a national movement of educators that expanded into a month-long focus.

2018 Theme is ‘African Americans in Times of War’

Click on this cover to visit the ASALH website.

The organization Woodson co-founded, ASALH, calls on educators to focus this year on “African Americans in Times of War.” In choosing that theme, the group’s leaders say they hope schools—and anyone else observing this month—will look into a host of issues related to military service. ASALH writes:

“These issues include opportunities for advancement and repression of opportunities during wartime; the struggle to integrate the military and experiences during segregation/apartheid and successful integration; veterans experiences once they returned home; the creation of African American Veteran of Foreign War posts; cultures and aesthetics of dissent; global/international discourse, including impact and influence of the Pan African Congresses; the impact of migration and urban development; educational opportunities; health care development; the roles of civil rights and Black liberation organizations, including the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party; the roles of African American businesses, women, religious institutions, and the Black press in the struggle abroad and at home; the topographies and spaces of Black military struggle, resistance and rebellion; and how Black soldiers and/veterans are documented and memorialized within public and private spaces. These diverse stories reveal war’s impact not only on men and women in uniform but on the larger African American community.”

Confront Racism with … accurate information

100 Questions and Answers about African Americans

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The Michigan State University School of Journalism has published a very helpful guidebook, 100 Questions and Answers About African Americans.

Why does racism continue to throw up so many tragic barriers in the U.S.? Part of the problem could be that we just don’t know each other very well. The Public Religion Research Institute asked people about their closest networks. About 75 percent of White Americans said all their closest confidants were White. About 65 percent of Black respondents said all their confidants were African American. Among Hispanics, the number was 46 percent.

In the Michigan State University School of Journalism, students are trying to take make cross-cultural conversations less awkward. Students start this process by asking people what questions they get about themselves, or wish others knew the answers to. Then, the guides answer those common questions. The students hope that these guides answer baseline questions people are curious about, but might be reluctant to ask because they don’t want to embarrass themselves or offend others.

100 Questions and Answers About African Americans answers potentially awkward questions:

• Should I say Black or African American?
• Why is slavery still an issue for some people?
• Why is it that White people can’t say the n-word, but some Black people do?
• What is the Black National Anthem?
• Do Black people get sunburns?

The guide answers some common misperceptions:
• Is it true there are more Black men in prison than in college?
• Are African Americans the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action?
• Does most federal food assistance go to African Americans?
• Did Abraham Lincoln end slavery?

And the guide explains achievement in rising educational and health levels, high voter turnout and accomplishments in science, technology and the arts.

Christians love to laugh in Bright Week and even Holy Humor Sunday

Bright Week Procession in Jordanville New York

Bright Week Procession at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, USA.

MONDAY-SUNDAY, APRIL 17-23—If someone in your Christian community is making merry in this week after Easter—they may be tapping into traditions that stretch back nearly two millennia.

“Originally this idea of good humor in the week after Easter came from the early Greek Christians, way back in the third century or so. They called this period after Easter Bright Week and the first Sunday after Easter is Bright Sunday,” said Cal Samra, this week, the nation’s leading expert on adding a dose of laughter to services in the week after Easter.

“I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I’m still alive and well and going strong,” Cal said in an interview. Visitors to Cal’s website, the Joyful Noiseletter, had been concerned about Cal’s status, these days. Some of the coverage on Cal’s homepage looks a little dated. A Google search of news stories about congregations scheduling Holy Humor Sundays, Cal’s trademark program, also look a little dated in 2017. One of the most popular online articles about the practice is from the U.S. Catholic, still showing up prominently on Google even though it originally was published in 2000.

The journalists who produce ReadTheSpirit are among many religion newswriters nationwide who covered the impact of Cal’s newsletter in prompting mainly Protestant churches to organize laugh-out-loud services of celebration on the Sunday after Easter. One of the most influential journalists to cover Cal’s impact in his early years was David Briggs, who was Associated Press Religion Writer when he published this landmark story in 1996: Christian Merrymakers Don’t Put Gloomy Face on Lent.

For more than a decade, newspaper stories about Holy Humor Sunday services popped up coast to coast. In 2017, we’re not seeing as many—but clearly that’s not because Cal has lost his festive spirit.


St Isaacs cathedral St Petersburg during Bright Week with doors open

During Bright Week, the doors of the iconostasis are open at the enormous St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Photo by Joonas Lyytinen, shared courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For nearly 2,000 years, Eastern Orthodox Christians have called the days after Easter “Bright Week” (Wikipedia has an extensive article). In Eastern tradition, special Bright Week customs range from processions and a special focus on joyful music—to a practice of keeping the holy doors in a church’s iconostasis open to symbolize the stone rolled away from Jesus’s tomb in Gospel accounts.

There are many cultural variants on the general theme. On “Wet Monday” 2017, the New York Times published this column from a neighborhood in Brooklyn, also known as Little Poland.

At least one leading Catholic writer, in recent years, has argued that the Orthodox don’t have a corner on holy humor. This should be regarded as a universal Christian custom, says best-selling author Fr. James Martin SJ. You can read more in our earlier ReadTheSpirit interviewed with Martin about his book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.

Some Protestant denominations also have staked their claim to a good laugh post-Easter. The United Methodist Church recommends the practice—along with a link to Cal’s resources—on its Discipleship Ministries website.


At age 86, Cal told us, “I still play tennis four times a week and I try to eat natural, organic foods. I’ve stayed halfway in good shape, for my age.”

That is why, over the past couple of years, Cal’s work has shifted toward a message closely linked to Christian ministry in many denominations: promoting healthy ways of living. “I’m still very much into humor, but I’ve spent a lot of time working on health and prevention, looking back into the early work of people like John Wesley, who wrote a lot about health care. My newest book is The Physically Fit Messiah.”


Cal opens his new book with his familiar message: Jesus is “a joyful spirit with a keen sense of humor who used humor, as well as prayer, in his healing ministry. He was not the sad-sack Messiah portrayed in many old icons and contemporary Christian paintings. He kept exhorting his followers to ‘Be of good cheer!’”

Then, he explains why he is spending more time researching and writing about health, these days. “Looking back on the last 30 years of Joyful Noiseletter issues, we were astonished at the number of articles that focused on physical fitness, good nutrition and health.”

Want to sample some of Cal Samra’s gentle humor? Check out this sample page on his Joyful Noiseletter website.

St. Patrick’s Day: History, recipes and his famous Breastplate prayer

Girl with red hair in traditional Irish dress in dark blue

An Irish dancer at an earlier St. Patrick’s Day Parade in San Francisco. Photo by Mark, courtesy of Flickr.

FRIDAY, MARCH 17: So, what’s a good Irish Catholic to do on this convergence of St. Patrick’s day with the Church’s tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent?

After all, tender corned beef is a traditional staple of the holiday! That’s not to mention plenty of beer—and Lenten Fridays are meant to be a time of prayerful self-denial.

Well, since this collision of observances rolls around approximately every seven years, many Catholic bishops anticipated the dilemma and already have issued 2017 dispensations to allow a hearty holiday meal. But, consider: Bishops like Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, also are cautioning Catholics to “exercise due moderation and temperance in festivities and celebrations of the memorial of St. Patrick, in keeping with the solemnity and honor that is due to so great a saint and his tireless efforts to inspire holiness in the Christian faithful.” That’s according to a report on the corned beef dilemma by Catholic News Service.

If you are concerned, check local news reports. More bishops are chiming in with dispensations as the holiday approaches.


The legendary patron saint of Ireland began life c. 385 CE, in Roman Britain. With a wealthy family whose patron was a deacon, the young man who would become known as St. Patrick led a comfortable life until his teenage years, when he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During his six years in Ireland, Patrick gained a deeper Christian faith. When he dreamed that God told him to flee to the coast, Patrick did so—and traveled home to become a priest. (Wikipedia has details.) Following ordination, however, another dream prompted Patrick to do what no one expected: to return to Ireland.

As a Christian in Ireland, Patrick worked to convert the pagan Irish. With a three-leaved shamrock in hand to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans, St. Patrick converted many. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 at Downpatrick.

St Patrick in stained glassSurprisingly, the most widely known saint from Ireland was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church. Since no formal canonization process existed in the Church’s first millennium, St. Patrick was deemed a saint only by popular acclaim and local approval.


One of the most popular posts in the decade-long history of ReadTheSpirit is a collection of three versions of the famous prayer known as The Breastplate. Start here for a Gaelic version and follow the link to find two more English versions, one as poetry and one as refashioned for a hymn.

Nonetheless, St. Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day by the early 17th century, observed by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and members of the Church of Ireland. Today, countries the world over offer citizens and tourists Irish-themed foods, drinks and culture on March 17. Dances, processions, performances and more illustrate the vibrancy of Irish history—all set against the very Irish color of green.

Skillet pan with pot pie vegetables and meat in gravy and potatoes braised and mashed on top

Beef and lamb shepherd’s pie for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo by Dennis Wilkinson, courtesy of Flickr


Who doesn’t dream of hearty Irish stews, hot Reuben sandwiches and cold drinks on St. Patrick’s Day? Get into the Irish spirit with these recipe ideas (and some crafts, to boot):

  • A plethora of easy-to-follow recipes, from brisket to soda bread, is at AllRecipes.
  • Kids can get into the spirit of the Irish with craft ideas from PBS and Parenting.com.

Bullying Prevention Month 2016: One-stop guide to info you need

PACER Bullying Prevention Month orange t shirt

Click on this shirt to visit PACER’s website to learn about the special October 19 Unity Day—and also the orange t-shirts PACER is recommending this year.

OCTOBER, 2016, especially October 19—Founded in 2006 by PACER‘s National Bullying Prevention Center, this important campaign is scheduled to coincide with the autumn school season nationwide. PACER originally was organized in the 1970s in Minnesota by parents of children and youth with disabilities to help families facing similar challenges nationwide. A decade ago, they proposed a week-long anti-bullying campaign each year; now, especially because so many parents and educators appreciate this effort, the focus has extended to the entire month of October.

Each year, PACER reaches out to communities through partnerships with education-based organizations such as National PTA, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association to provide schools, parents and students with resources to respond to bullying behavior and to begin the shift of societal acceptance of bullying.

This year’s theme is: “A Decade Together Against Bullying.” Wikipedia has details on past years’ themes and other milestones in this campaign.


dennis-the-menace-in-bullying-is-no-laughing-matterReadTheSpirit Books publishes a series of popular and very practical books that combat bullying. The most colorful is Bullying Is No Laughing Matter, a collection created by dozens of top comic strip artists across the nation who each contributed a page on overcoming such bias. Teachers have used this book—sometimes developing lesson plans around a single comic character within the big book. Here’s an earlier story about how an elementary school invited kids to “Stop Bullying in Its Tracks” with Dennis the Menace. (You can learn more about this book and find other helpful resources in our bookstore.)

We also work with the Michigan State University  School of Journalism Bias Busters program, which has produced a whole series of books that help to reduce bigotry and end bullying. (Read the latest news about the Bias Busters’ in this new October 2016 story.)


Government agencies now have come on board to help parents, educators and anyone who cares about the welfare of children. Here are three valuable links:

STOP BULLYING.GOV—The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services runs the www.StopBullying.gov website. In addition to October 19 Unity Day, this website is a clearinghouse of lots of other special programs running during October. There’s a five-day period devoted to LGBT youth, a similar period set aside to focus on American Indian youth, and even a Twitter Town Hall on October 20 with experts from the Centers for Disease Control answering questions.

PROFESSIONAL INFORMATION—The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) also is sponsored by divisions of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—along with UCLA and Duke University. The NCTSN’s bullying-awareness web page has very useful links for: families, teens and tweens, educators, clinicians and mental health professionals, law enforcement personnel and policy makers.

Raksha Bandhan: Hindu festival honors sibling love, special relationships

Woman at market in front of rows and boxes of colorfu bracelets

A woman browses a marketplace for rakhi. Photo by Vishal Dutta, courtesy of Flickr

NEWS 2016: This year, UK armed forces have celebrated Raksha Bandhan across Britain; India Times presents a list of nostalgic memories slideshow for anyone who grew up with a sibling; Amazon India delivers a heartfelt message in this year’s Raksha campaign, #DeliverTheLove; and, read all about how rakhis are helping to empower a local economy.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 18: Today’s festival of Raksha Bandhan—celebrated across India and in Hindu communities worldwide—honors the sacred bonds between brothers and sisters. Over many centuries, the rakhi (from Sanskrit, “the tie or knot of affection”) has evolved from simple, handspun threads into bangles adorned in jewels, crystals, cartoon characters and even political figures.

The simple gift expresses renewed love between siblings and sometimes between others who share a bond of brotherhood. More than a century ago, the famous Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore suggested that Muslims and Hindus exchange rakhi as signs of peace and unity as Indians.

Typically, today, women present a rakhi to men and, in return, the men promise to protect the women who offer them a bracelet. (Learn more from the Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India.) Although usually associated with Hinduism, Raksha Banhan has reached a wider cultural status—often celebrated by Jains, Sikhs and even some Muslims across India, Mauritus, parts of Nepal and Pakistan.


Weeks before the culmination of Raksha Bandhan, Indian shops offer a bright palette of threads for women making their own rakhi. Shops also are stocked with colorful premade rakhi. The bracelet may be as plain or as opulent as the woman wishes, although most are adorned with some type of decoration at the middle. Men also shop market stands, searching for a token of love for their sisterly Raksha Bandhan companion.

Interested in making your own rakhi? Find simple instructions here.

The morning of the festival, brothers and sisters greet one another in, if possible, the presence of other family members. The sister ties a rakhi on her brother’s wrist, reciting prayers for his well-being and applying a colorful tilak mark to his forehead. The brother promises, in return, to protect his sister under all circumstances—even if she is married—and the two indulge in sweet foods. The brother presents the sister with a gift, and everyone present rejoices in the gladness of family. When a brother and sister cannot be together on Raksha Bandhan, they often send each other cards and gifts for the occasion.


A first-of-its-kind International Raksha Bandhan festival will be held on August 17 in New Delhi, according to news sources. Aside from more local attendees and families, organizers are anticipating visitors from almost 40 countries to attend the festival. According to one representative, “Raksha Bandhan is a festival which can provide way for answers to many global problems.”

Happy 100th Beverly Cleary! Thanks for all the memories!

Henry Huggins in Spanish in 2000 (1)

A Spanish edition of Beverly Cleary’s first book, Henry Huggins, in 2000 at the novels 50th anniversary. CLICK on this cover to visit the book’s English-language Amazon page.

TUESDAY, APRIL 12—In 1916, Beverly Cleary was born to an Oregon farmer and schoolteacher. Their only child, Beverly had a strong will and found the books she was given to read at school were decidedly dull. As a result, she struggled to learn to read as a little girl—and later said that she felt so uncomfortable at school in those early years that she wanted to drop out.

Of course, her parents didn’t let her do that—and we’re all thankful that Beverly Cleary came to love reading. Eventually she became a librarian, but the old problem resurfaced: Too many books for young readers were boring!

In 1950, Cleary published the first of her many novels: Henry Huggins, which also introduced his beloved dog Ribsy.

Cleary says in recent interviews that she was determined not to offer lessons at the end of her stories.

“As a child, I very much objected to books that tried to teach me something,” she told The New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof. “I just wanted to read for pleasure, and I did. But if a book tried to teach me, I returned it to the library.”



This week, Kristof is among many writers urging families to enjoy books with their children to honor Cleary’s centennial.


Want more? Beverly Cleary’s “hometown newspaper,” The Oregonian, produced the following two-minute video. 


Eastern Orthodox Christians begin 2016 fast of Great Lent

Lagana bread, usually baked without oil, in a photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Lagana bread, usually baked without oil, in a photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Lenten season begins for hundreds of millions of Eastern Christians, also known as Orthodox Christians, through a series of traditional steps to prepare for this Great Fast …

  • Clean Monday kites flying photo from Wikimedia CommonsSUNDAY, MARCH 6: Meatfare Sunday or Sunday of the Last Judgment. Preparing for the “Great Fast” of Lent, this is the last day that meat can be eaten until Pascha (Orthodox Easter, this year, on May 1)—but dairy products still are allowed for another week. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America provides this in-depth overview of Eastern fasting practices and the various religious milestones during this season.
  • SUNDAY, MARCH 13: Cheesefare Sunday or Forgiveness Sunday. This is the last day that dairy products can be consumed until Pascha. The spiritual focus of this Sunday liturgy is on “forgiveness,” an appropriate theme to remember as these Christians enter this long period of prayer and reflection.
  • MONDAY, MARCH 14: Clean Monday is the beginning of the “Great Fast” of Lent. Let the kites fly! And—read further to learn about Lagana, a seasonal bread known throughout Greece as the taste of Clean Monday. Wikipedia has a detailed overview of Clean Monday customs.
  • EAST & WEST and the unity of Easter: Western Christians begin their Lenten season this year with Ash Wednesday on March 10 with Easter on March 27. The differences in dates are due to centuries-old customs for calculating the date of Easter, which vary from East to West. The Christian world won’t have a unified Easter again until 2017—and then there will be years of differences until Easter 2025 and 2028.

Prayerful Attention to Tradition: To many Americans, this Great Fast may sound extreme. Another way to think about it, though, is as a healthy season of Mediterranean eating. Whole grains and vegetables dominate in recipes associated with Great Lent. Of course, some families from an Orthodox background skip the fasting rules—just as many Western Christians overlook their own far-less-restrictive fasting traditions. But, observant Orthodox families around the world do change their eating habits, each year, in the weeks leading to Pascha.

During the fast, Eastern Christians avoid: meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, wine and oil. There are traditional exceptions within the Orthodox calendar. Wine and oil are permitted on all Sundays during this period, for example. And an ancient tradition—the feast of the Annunciation—is considered so sacred that it always falls on March 25, even during Great Lent. That feast recalls Mary receiving news that she would be the mother of Jesus, nine months later. Thus, on Tuesday March 25, this year—fish, wine and oil are permitted for the feast.


Greek Orthodox Calendar App

The Tsolias logo.

HOW DO WE KEEP TRACK? Here at ReadTheSpirit online magazine, how do we cover this complex season? Well, thanks to longtime reader David Adrian, each year, we receive the kind of Orthodox wall calendar that many congregations provide to their faithful. That’s one way.

The other is via smartphone apps. Our favorite is the Greek Orthodox Calendar app, developed by Tsolias Software. The app shows us each day’s spiritual resources at a glance, including colorful little icons of the food groups permitted that day. (There are lots of fasting days in the Orthodox calendar, each year, and the app keeps track of all the rules.) We also have heard strong reader recommendations of the apps developed in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. And, if you want a “free” app, we’ve heard that the Orthodox Calendar by David Ledselidze is pretty useful, as well. Plus, Ledselidze’s app has more resources of special interest to Russian Orthodox men and women.


Considering the strict nature of this fast, the cheery celebration of Clean Monday may seem jarring. Congregations are reminded, however, that it is important to remain outwardly pleasant during the fasting period. The passage of Matthew 6, verses 14-21, is read to drive home this spiritual lesson. It says, in part: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”

The most common Clean Monday vista in Greece is a blue sky full of colorful kites. Families pack up traditional Lenten foods for a picnic. It’s a national holiday, so most workers and students have the day free.


The traditional Greek Orthodox taste of Clean Monday is a sesame-topped bread called Lagana—usually made long and fairly flat, and ideally a very tasty bread. It’s also true that some home cooks produce something more akin to a giant, crunchy breadstick—but, if prepared properly, this is a delicious bread.

Want a recipe that’s likely to produce the tastier variety? There are many online, but we especially like this photo-illustrated, step-by-step recipe from The Greek Vegan. Beyond the helpful photos, here’s another reason we like this particular website’s approach to the recipe: These days, a lot of online recipes wink at the restrictions of the Great Fast and include oil in the ingredients. The Greek Vegan recognizes that this is a serious issue for many Christians and explains how to make this bread in the traditional, oil-free way.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)